Ways & Means to an End

Exodus From Key Panel Throws Members Into Job Market

Posted May 14, 2004 at 5:29pm

By his own reckoning, the last time Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) crafted a résumé was about two decades ago, when he left college. Now, like a humble post-grad, the six-term lawmaker schleps his résumé from interview to interview in Washington’s other corridors of power.

McInnis is retiring at the end of this Congress, and his seat on the exclusive Ways and Means Committee makes him a highly attractive commodity in the capital’s labor market. McInnis’ committee oversees taxes and trade, and his expertise would make him an asset to countless organizations that have business before Congress.

So that means that McInnis — and a number of other senior Members who are leaving Congress soon — are finding the tables turned. No longer are they grilling expert witnesses from the tall dais of a paneled hearing room. Now they’re the ones squirming in the hot seat, dealing with everything from intrusive vetting by employers to careful following of ethics rules.

McInnis will soon join Hogan & Hartson, the blue-chip law firm, but the process continues nonetheless. McInnis estimates that he has so far sat for get-to-know-you interviews with roughly 50 partners in the Washington and Denver offices. And there are more to come: Wanting to maintain some of the lowest malpractice-insurance premiums in the business means that the partners need to thoroughly vet their prospective colleague’s background.

“I can understand it,” McInnis said. “They’ve got to think about risks in their business.”

What makes McInnis’ committee particularly prominent inside Congress is the constitutional requirement that all revenue measures originate in the House. For that reason, lawmakers on Ways and Means hold the key to loads of A-list issues, from tax reform to entitlement reform.

While more aggregate campaign dollars flow to the Energy and Commerce, Appropriations and Financial Services committees each year, each of those committees is bigger than Ways and Means. At nearly $325,000 in donations per member, the tax-writing committee is arguably king of the fundraising community.

McInnis isn’t the only Ways and Means member making the big transition right now. The committee will lose four of its members after the 108th Congress — a figure that, while seemingly small, is actually a sizable exodus by historical standards. Ways and Means’ reputation as a plum committee assignment means that those who join the panel tend to stick around for the long haul.

Three members of the committee — McInnis, plus Reps. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.) and Jerry Kleczka (D-Wis.) — will enter the private sector at the end of this Congress. A fourth, Rep. Mac Collins (R-Ga.), is seeking the GOP nomination for Senate.

Dunn says she has met with a dozen prospective employers since the beginning of the year. The list of suitors includes law firms as well as corporations where friends have approached her about sitting on the board of directors.

But Dunn suggests that she may be most interested in leading an industry association or a foundation.

“As a result of Ways and Means, I’ve had experience in the health care area, the trade area, and in the area of tax legislation,” Dunn said. “Those are a [few] issues that would make me more qualified for a number of organizations in a number of areas.”

Having a Ways and Means seat is “an additional strength” in her job search, she says. “Being on Ways and Means exposes you to such a broad set of issues that are important — many of which are either exacerbated or solved through legislation.”

Kleczka did not respond to a request for comment.

House ethics rules provide lawmakers with a wide berth to negotiate with employers while they are still in Congress. But they also stress that Members should strictly police themselves in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

The guidelines, which were last updated by the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in November 2002, suggest several measures that provide at least the appearance of distance between lawmakers and their prospective employers.

One recommendation is that lawmakers lay out in an exchange of letters that no official favors will be given or expected as a result of the negotiations, and that the employer understands that former Members cannot lobby Congress for at least a year after their departure.

Ultimately, however, it’s left to lawmakers to determine where they draw the lines. McInnis, for instance, asked Hogan & Hartson for its client list to make sure he recused himself in instances where their interests could be caught in the crossfire.

Dunn said she never purchases stock in companies that are based in her home state, because she feels it would push the line between constituent service and personal interest. She added that the people she now talks to about jobs are not the same people she deals with in the course of legislative business, because they aren’t the constituents she serves back home.

The overwhelming majority of lawmakers deal with potential employers through headhunting firms, according to outside consultants who have helped retiring Members of Congress link up with new jobs.

Eric Vautour, a headhunter with the firm Russell Reynolds Associates, said he never lets lawmakers know the name of the clients he is working for until the end of the process, to preserve some distance.

“Oftentimes, if I can get away with it, I don’t say whether [I’m representing] a company, or a corporate board or a not-for-profit,” said Vautour, who is currently negotiating on behalf of clients with three Members.

Vautour nevertheless provides what he considers to be enough information that Members can steer clear of issues that could be problematic. And he recommends to Members that they seek advice before doing anything that may be considered questionable.

Another retiring Member of Congress who does not serve on Ways and Means but who has a long pro-business record said he’s also moving cautiously.

Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.), a founder of the pro-business New Democrat Coalition, was a key contact for corporate America among House Democrats. While Dooley served on the less-celebrated House Agriculture Committee, the calls have been rolling in from various groups that want to touch base.

“My standard line is, ‘I’ve made no plans, but I’m very excited about them,’” said Dooley, who has heard from people in areas ranging from lobbying to international trade to academia.

Others who have been through the process in years past say they have advice for Members going through the transition now.

“My advice is don’t jump too fast,” said former Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.), a one-time Ways and Means member who now heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “Having been in Congress, it’s a very unique position, and you think you know more than you know about the outside world. I would say be careful, because once you take a job, you’re in that job.”